20 October 2021

What’s killing our MPs?


There it was, sitting on the conference table in Senator David Leyonhjelm’s electoral office, glowing. Death threats are common in politics and, I have to say, usually ignored. This, however, was radioactive. Among other things, it included a vivid fantasy of smashing my then boss’s skull and stomping the bone fragments into his office carpet. 

‘I think,’ David said heavily, ‘we need to tell the AFP [Australian Federal Police] about this one’.

That investigation – as well as several follow-up chats with AFP officers after a spate of online and offline death threats directed at both David and me – was very revealing. Turns out it’s hard to tell when a death threat is serious or vacuous braggadocio. And it gets harder the farther away any given threat moves from traditional forms of communication.

My first novel caused a major national controversy before email was much of a thing, which meant I was deluged with abusive correspondence. For a while there, Australia Post was delivering my mail in sacks. Subjectively, I experienced this as far more threatening than anything emailed to or tweeted at me since. A willingness to stuff an envelope, affix a stamp and walk to the post office was a sign a harasser ‘meant it’, although the AFP pointed out the heuristic has broken down thanks to huge uptake of email. Your Nan’s using it now to organise her Waitrose deliveries. 

Police still tend to assume an emailer is more likely to ‘mean it’, but even so, one AFP officer suggested this may be because there’s a lot of information in an email. Masking one’s identity when sending a threatening one is surprisingly difficult. Meanwhile, the number of ‘loose units’ in the population is rather higher than we commonly think. Another AFP officer said, bluntly, ‘there’s one in every suburban street’.

Australia is less dangerous for its MPs than the UK – only once has a serving parliamentarian been murdered in office, and the killer’s motive had more to do with organised crime than political ideology. That the two countries are both parliamentary democracies run on the Westminster model – with single-member constituencies and significant contact between MPs and the general public – suggests it’s possible to improve MPs’ security without undermining healthy civic engagement. Australia – as I think everyone knows – also has a more belligerent and confrontational political culture than the UK and yet keeps its MPs safe and whole. This is doable. 

All that, however, is to one side when it comes to the murder of both Sir David Amess and Jo Cox. I say this because there’s a lot of blame flying around right now, largely directed at social media (especially Twitter) and anonymity on social media (especially Twitter).

Far-right extremists and Islamists are not tweeting death threats at MPs, menacing local councillors on community Facebook pages, or sending letters written in green ink to political staffers. Typically, a lonely, often mentally ill young man who starts as a sincere Muslim or nationalist goes down the rabbit-hole and comes out the other side a violent extremist. The process is much less visible than anything on Twitter. The coarsening of public discourse, emergence of Manichaean political thinking, and any relationship they have to social media use is one issue. Ideologically motivated terrorism is another, very different, issue. 

Stopping violent ideologues before they strike is, as always when it comes to terrorism, a matter of patient yet decisive policing. And while we’re doing this – since Prevent is all over the news again – it’s wise to remember that integration and security policies also concentrate government power such that civil liberties are undermined at the population level. In other words, it’s easier to erect one barrier around the country through immigration policy than many barriers around every rock concert or constituency surgery inside it. And, yes, the composition of a country’s immigration and refugee intake matters.

What social media does do is polarise. Whatever beliefs one brings to it are reinforced and sometimes embroidered. Healthy suspicion of government diktats curdles into vaccine conspiracies. A strong commitment to complying with health ordinances ferments into public confrontation of those not wearing masks. The polarisation effect is not, however, unique to social media, and is unevenly distributed across different media types. 

In his latest book, How Innovation Works, science writer and zoologist Matt Ridley observes that the first mass availability of radio coincided with intense political polarisation, something empirically verifiable. The March 1933 Nazi vote share ‘increased more in places where more people had access to radios,’ while in the US, both notorious anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin and President Franklin Roosevelt built huge and loyal support-bases through radio. In 1934, Guglielmo Marconi himself, dismayed at the uses to which Nazis and Communists alike were putting his invention (he originally conceived of it as a communications medium, and not for broadcast), wondered aloud, ‘have I done the world a good, or have I added a menace?’

In 1994, the world witnessed another horrifying natural experiment along similar lines. Ridley notes how, during the Rwandan genocide, ‘the more people in an area had access to the hate radio station, RTLM, the greater the violence against Tutsis’. Even here, though, caution is necessary. The recency of the slaughter meant that researchers had access to vast amounts of data disclosed in subsequent war crimes litigation. According to the latest study, no more than 10% of the violence – and possibly a bit less – could be attributed to RTLM’s broadcasts.

Relatedly, the extent to which the invention of the printing press contributed to Europe’s Wars of Religion is still a topic of lively debate among Early Modernists, with historian Niall Ferguson describing books like the Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) as early examples of ‘fake news’ that ‘went viral’ thanks to… being printed books, and therefore cheap.

Books, radio, and Twitter all share a common trait. They’re word-based and provide minimal or no visual cues. We human beings, however, evolved to communicate with each other face-to-face. It’s possible – as Ridley goes on to discuss – television brought national electorates back towards a social consensus and did not polarise because it lets us see each other’s faces. Senator Joe McCarthy was notoriously ‘found out’ on telly, and Ridley describes the speed with which his bubble burst. ‘The American people have had a look at you for six weeks,’ quipped Senator Stuart Symington, ‘you are not fooling anyone’.

Whether the polarisation and discursive coarsening facilitated by social media leads to anything worse than the digital equivalent of hot air is still unknown. We need much more research before we claim it’s killing our MPs. And until that happens, an Online Safety Bill or ‘David’s Law’ cutting the legs out from under Twitter to stop MPs getting murdered while doing their jobs is the wrong answer to the right question.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, 'The Hand that Signed the Paper'. Her latest novel is 'Kingdom of the Wicked'; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.